Down for the Count

When Rosemary George had a hip replacement five years ago, she sent her three collies and 15-year-old terrier-mix to stay with various people, expecting to have them back home within a few weeks of surgery. Instead, a serious postsurgical infection kept her hospitalized for weeks, culminating in five additional surgeries. She was finally able to go home, although she was still sick and weak, unable to drive for months.

Sherman, her terrier-mix, boarded with a pet sitter for three months while she recuperated. A friend was finally able to bring him home to her, but the prolonged stay was the beginning of a downward spiral for the geriatric dog. Her collie Bridget was away from home for six months, Shayna for nine months and Mick for nearly a year.

George’s experience is an extreme example of what can go wrong when pet owners get a bad case of the flu, break a bone or develop complications after surgery. Without a plan and friends who can pitch in, it’s all too easy for pet lovers to be stymied in caring for their animals.

“I could never have managed to get through this horrible time, which is known to family and friends as ‘the hip replacement from hell,’ without the help of so many, many kind and generous dog friends,” George says. “And you know what? As horrible as the experience was, the worst part was being separated from my dogs for so long. I’ll never get that time back.”

It’s easier with cats, but their care in a postsurgical situation still requires planning and preparation. Barbara Cole Miller, who recently underwent knee-replacement surgery, left her cat Piper at home with plenty of food and water during the day and night she was hospitalized. She knew from past experience that Piper didn’t do well being boarded. The amount of food and water she left out ensured that she didn’t have to worry about getting around to feed Piper for more than a week.

“My primary concern when I came home was scooping the litter box,” she says. Knee replacement patients are warned to reach only between knees and shoulders. Miller was able to scoop Piper’s box almost immediately but was still concerned about the possibility of falling. Visiting friends helped as well.

Young and highly active dogs pose a different problem for injured or ill people who aren’t able or willing to have their dogs stay somewhere

It can be hard on pets and people when human injuries or illness cause separation or downtime.

else. Tracy Weber, a yoga teacher in Seattle, broke her collarbone recently, which has put her in a sling for a couple of months. Because of the high risk of falling, it will be another three months before she can take her 18-month-old German shepherd, Ana, for walks. The experience is taking a toll on both of them.

A friend comes over and plays with Ana, but Weber is reluctant to hire a dog walker because Ana is skilled at slipping out of her harness and doesn’t always come when called.

“I’ve been doing some clicker training with her to train her to do new things and make her focus more,” Weber says. “My husband is taking her for a half-hour walk every night. I’m using treat toys so she has to play to get her treats out. I’m also using lots of chews, but it’s not easy.”

After a horse in a hurry for breakfast knocked down Gina Spadafori, causing her to fall and break her wrist, she called on a cast of friends and neighbors to help care for her four dogs, two horses, four goats and a dozen chickens; hired someone to clean the house; and had her dogs do tricks, play with puzzle toys and practice indoor heeling and long downs to keep their minds engaged.

“The key is not being ashamed or reluctant to ask for help, because you’re probably going to need it,” she says.